Today, almost all business is global business. Cultural awareness is core for successful businesspeople today. This post is part in an ongoing series to help readers leverage insights into the eight dimensions of culturally based work style differences, so you can raise your own global business productivity.
Some cultural dimensions are easy to recognize. Think about Hierarchy, Formality and Time: They’re visible thru honorifics and titles, the way people dress, and how seriously they act about deadlines and schedules.
By contrast, Change Tolerance is more subtle and harder to recognize. Yet, in business today, Change Tolerance may be the most critical to understand of all eight dimensions in the CultureWizard Intercultural Model®, because included in it are the related concepts of risk tolerance and comfort with ambiguity. And it’s not exactly news that global business has been growing more complex, ambiguous, and riskier with each passing year.
Significant Divergence in Cross-Cultural Attitudes Towards Change
Change Tolerance refers to attitudes towards newness, embracing different ways of doing things and whether or not individuals view change as bringing opportunity or threat. Is change seen as part of the natural order – or something to avoid? That is a key question in today’s world, where technology is propelling workplace and social change at an ever-increasing pace. However, not all cultures view change as a positive force: The spectrum for this Dimension runs from Tolerant to Averse.
In order to obtain change, we need to take risks, which Change Tolerant cultures see as a good thing. The threat of uncertainty is tolerated because it promises improvement. However, Change Averse cultures generally prefer the status quo because they don’t necessarily see change as a positive force. Even when its value is recognized, people in Change Averse cultures feel change should be carefully implemented.
Tolerant cultures, meanwhile, generally believe they can control change outcomes through their own actions. They’re relatively forgiving of failures because, after all, without risking “failure” there can be no change. Change Averse cultures, however, believe that outcomes are largely out of individual control, and the fear of failure is profound because failure has long lasting effects on one’s career and reputation. In other words, the downside of failure outweighs the upside potential of the change.
Brainstorming Meeting with a Multi-Cultural Global Team
A few years ago, I led a brainstorming meeting with a global team that was particularly frustrating. Since it was a brainstorming session, I assumed the team would get together, use a white board and put forward a variety of creative ideas. I expected it would be quite spontaneous, and put forward some creative ideas to stimulate discussion—never expecting them to be adopted.
It was clear that our European colleagues had a totally different idea of what a brainstorming meeting entailed. They proceeded to display PowerPoint slides with detailed outlines of already developed ideas and plans. It was a strong reminder of how the Change Dimension impacts typical business practices, even brainstorming.
Cross-Cultural Foundations of Change Tolerance
Critical to shaping a culture’s place within the Change Tolerance Dimension are shared ideas about how much control we have over our own destiny.
As we know, culture is a product of history, myths, and heroes, etc. Generally speaking, cultures that are Change Tolerant have an underlying tradition of pioneers and immigrants. The folklore is rife with stories of people taking on massive risks and challenges. Idealists set off on ships in search of new horizons; settlers went into the wilderness to change their lives and find new opportunities; people arrived in “new lands” where the terrain was unknown. Indeed, risk is a cultural heritage and leaders actively advance new initiatives. Underlying this is people’s belief that they are in charge of their futures and see transitions as constant.
By contrast, Change Averse cultures have very different backgrounds. Their history and tradition focus on protecting the status quo, and people view change as a potential threat to fundamental values. Change Averse cultures look at new opportunities as potentially creating problems and leaders are expected to be champions of tradition who promise to maintain fundamental values rooted in history. These cultures tend to create organizations that have more clearly defined approval systems and devote more time before feeling comfortable about undertaking new initiatives.
You can see this clearly in local proverbs. Compare the Saudi Arabian proverb, “The chameleon does not leave one tree until he is sure of another” with the US proverb, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” It’s obvious that one lauds caution while the other values risk.
Change Tolerance in Cross-Cultural Business Work Styles
Early in my career, in response to an opportunity from a client, we opened an office in the UK staffed with young, talented, ambitious people. I was surprised to see how much more detail and exploration of down-side possibilities they needed before taking action. As a young manager, I simply encouraged them to “try it” and they would make it work.
In response, they told me all the things that could go wrong. I misinterpreted that as people making excuses for failure that might occur. What was actually happening was that they needed to explore the risks so that they might anticipate and avoid them. I eventually realized that as uncomfortable as it was for me to discuss and anticipate all the possible risks of failure, without such discussion the UK team would feel less prepared to take on the challenge. We frankly discussed our different cultural attitudes; I learned to “flex” my style and they were less afraid of the changes and challenges because we always discussed them in the cross-cultural context of our differing work styles.
You can see these types of differences in many business endeavors. Projects and proposals are good examples. Change Tolerant cultures generally focus first on an opportunity and expound on it, leaving the discussion of risk to an addendum or the back pages. Societies that are less tolerant of change present the possibilities of risk early in the proposition and may enumerate historical perspectives that lead to the idea that something new is required. In other words, change isn’t seen, in-and-of itself, as something positive. Furthermore, there is little tolerance for failure so the rationale for taking the risk is important.
Intercultural Attitudes Towards Handling Ambiguity
We don’t want to leave the discussion of Risk and Change Tolerance without tying it to the way different people and cultures deal with ambiguity. We’ve all noticed how some people are more comfortable than others sailing into unknown waters and handling situations that are not explicitly defined. While this is something of a personality trait, it’s also culturally tethered to the Change Dimension.
Of course, there’s greater risk when dealing with ambiguous, nonspecific situations, so it follows that cultures with a greater tolerance for risk may have greater comfort in those instances. This is particularly important when dealing in the intercultural arena, where unanticipated challenges seem to occur with greater frequency.
Global Business is Risk Management
As is obvious by now, the Change Tolerance Dimension is critical to doing business in the global arena because so much of business is fundamentally controlling risks and exploiting new opportunities, both of which are impacted by Change Tolerance. Moreover, the natural risks inherent in doing business in increasingly complex and ambiguous environments are multiplied when you’re doing so in multi-cultural teams whose members’ work styles culturally diverge.
Here are some approaches we’ve seen help raise productivity for such multi-cultural teams:
1) When you know that people are Change Averse, provide more detail and rationale to support the need for it.
2) Allow more time to accommodate questions and challenges, as well as more time for the team to absorb the impact of the change.
3) Suggest an implementation plan along with the change recommendation.
Most importantly, always keep in mind the principles of the Change Dimension when presenting new ideas or when evaluating the reactions you get from colleagues of different cultures. Doing so should help you avoid incorrect judgments and erroneous conclusions.